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Back from the dead - the Emu Point peppermint trees

Updated: Mar 9, 2022

In my book about the 1978 Cyclone Alby storm and bushfire crisis, there is a story about Albany trees. I like the story because it demonstrates both the resilience of our native Australian vegetation and the foresight of our civic leaders.

Cyclone Alby was a Category 5 storm, and had a devastating impact on trees right across southern WA. Countless thousands were uprooted and many more thousands were injured. While the worst damage occurred to isolated trees on farm paddocks or on road verges, the trees within the city of Albany were also hard hit. Few survived unscathed. Many fine and historic trees in parks and gardens were blown over or snapped off, while others lost their branches or were stripped of foliage.

A story told to me by Denbarker farmer Tony Smith gives an idea of the power of the storm. As he watched from his ute, the wind tore the whole tops off large jarrah trees. They were bigger than his ute, and the gale bowled them across the paddock like giant beach balls.

Roads all across the region were blocked, and many farms were cut-off. It was days, in some cases weeks, before the region’s rural roads were cleared of fallen trees and timber debris.

I was working as a forester at Manjimup at the time, but we had a holiday house on Mt Melville in Albany. Here we spent all of our spare time, and over the years we had merged a little into the Albany life and community. A few days after Cyclone Alby had ravaged the Great Southern, I received an unexpected phone call from Harold Smith, the Mayor of Albany. He was seeking advice about cyclone-damaged trees. I am not sure why he contacted me, although these were the days before the advent of CALM and blue gum plantations, and Albany had no foresters of its own for the mayor to consult.

Mr Smith explained that in ravaging the city, the cyclone had seemingly destroyed the beautiful peppermint trees on the Shire reserve at Emu Point, under whose shade many generations of Albany families had picnicked, rested after a swim or relaxed on a summer’s day. I knew the area well, as my wife and I had sat under these very trees when our kids were being chilled to the bone at their swimming lessons in the icy waters of Oyster Harbour. We would be ready with blankets and a thermos of hot milo when the swimming lessons were over.

The beach, lawns and peppi trees on the Emu Point reserve, before Cyclone Alby struck (photo source: the Albany Historical Collection)

In the days after Cyclone Alby the leafy crowns of the Emu Point peppermints turned brown and, to all intents and purposes, the trees were dead. The lawns and carpark were littered with debris. The mayor told me that, as part of the post-storm clean-up, Council had pretty much decided to bulldoze and remove the dead trees on the reserve at Emu Point, and replant with new ones. However, he also said that he would appreciate some independent advice, as these trees were an important part of Albany’s heritage and he did not want to oversee any precipitous action. I undertook to inspect them the following weekend when I would be in town.

Like all West Australians of my generation, I was very familiar with the WA peppermint tree (botanical name Agonis flexuosa). A handsome, stocky tree with weeping foliage and white blossom, it grows naturally all around the south-west of WA, favouring sandy coastal soils. Domesticated from the bush, it has become a popular tree in caravan parks, golf courses and urban picnic areas because it is shady and co-exists beautifully with mown lawns (unlike many eucalyptus trees, under which grass will not grow). ‘Peppies’ have also been widely planted as street trees throughout the suburbs of Perth and other south-west cities, including the Emu Point and Middleton Beach suburbs. (WA peppermints are also a popular street tree in the posher suburbs of Melbourne, where they are known as ‘Willow Myrtle’). The name “peppermint”, incidentally, comes from the pungent aroma when you crush the leaves.

Another characteristic of peppermint trees is that they are tough, easily able to survive defoliation, either by a bushfire or over-enthusiastic pruning by a council horticulturalist.

Arriving at Emu Point for my inspection that April day back in 1978, I saw immediately that the peppermint trees on the reserve had been severely damaged by the cyclone. It was easy to see what had happened. Because the cyclonic winds blew from the north, the trees on the north-facing shore of Oyster Harbour had taken the full brunt of the storm, blowing at open velocity across the water. As a result, they had been blasted for about two hours by a super-powerful wind loaded -up with salt and beach sand. All of the foliage on all of the trees had been killed; the dead leaves were scorched and rigid. The image of having been given a haircut with a blowtorch came to mind.

But in fact, the trees were still alive. When I scratched the rough outer bark with my pocket knife, fresh live and healthy bark was disclosed beneath.

I was not surprised. I had no idea how old these trees were. Perhaps they had been planted decades before, or maybe they had been mature trees already before European settlement in 1827. They must have survived many a storm and bushfire over that time. Moreover, peppermint trees are native to the WA bush, and supremely well-equipped to survive in an environment in which summer fire and winter storms are frequent visitors. Like their close relative the eucalyptus, the peppermint is a “resprouter”. If the tree is defoliated, it recovers by putting out new shoots from dormant buds along the trunk and upper branches. These dormant buds are protected by the thick, fibrous outer-bark which has remarkable insulating properties. The dormancy is broken as soon as the live foliage is removed and the new shoots develop rapidly. One of the reasons for this is that the peppermint’s root system (in these sandy soils) is deep below the surface and impervious to wind or fire, so the new shoots have immediate access to water and nutrients.

As soon as I saw that the peppermint’s inner bark had survived intact, I knew that the trees were OK. When I reported back to the mayor, I recommended that the trees be left as they were, and allowed to recover on their own terms. This they did, and within a year it was hard to tell that the trees had suffered in the storm at all, as they had completely recovered their green leafy crowns. Who would know today that they had once been declared dead and scheduled for the chop?

Most of the grand old peppermint trees in the suburbs of Emu Point and Middleton Beach, and on the golf course and in the caravan parks, were also damaged by Cyclone Alby, but not as severely as were those on the reserve facing Oyster Harbour, as they were more protected from the full blast of the wind. They also recovered rapidly.

Whenever I am in Albany these days, I always visit Emu Point and admire the peppermint trees on the waterfront. They have remained an important part of Albany’s heritage and provide shade and beauty to Emu Point visitors. I also remember the responsible caution shown by our civic leader, Mayor Smith, at the time, and I am pleased that I was able to help him conserve these lovely old trees.

The story of the Emu Point peppermint trees also serves as a reminder of how easy it is to take a familiar thing for granted. Even though they are beautiful, graceful trees, whose dense foliage provides welcome summer shade, or shelter from a winter drizzle, and despite their wonderful resilience in the face of fire or storm, we tend to drive or walk past the Emu Point or Middleton Beach peppies without a second glance. They have become just “part of the landscape”.

So, it is good to pause and reflect, to appreciate the fact that our native peppies are a glory of nature, and to realise how lucky we are to have them as part of our environment.

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